On Quora, somebody asked me an interesting question, namely „What is the origin of the word ‚moonshine‘?“ so naturally, having had a bit of experience drinking the stuff on both sides of the Atlantic, I sat down and did some research.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, moonshine is defined as “whisky or other strong alcoholic drinks made and sold illegally.” It was first used to refer to liquor in the 18th century in England, where smugglers brought in illicit liquor mainly through Kent and Sussex.
In the U.S., the term first crops up in 1839 in Pennsylvania and other grain-producing states. Farms with grain mills would distill their excess product so that it wouldn’t spoil. In 1791, the federal government imposed a tax on liquor made in the country, the so-called “whiskey tax.” Attempts to enforce this law led to widespread rioting. When 500 enraged Pennsylvanians attacked the tax inspector general’s home, the leader of the protest was killed and more than 6,000 joined what historians have labeled the „Whiskey Rebellion“, leading to the repeal of the tax in 1801.
Moonshine eventually acquired a bad name because shoddy manufacturing methods often produced batches that could led to blindness or even death. Over time, other names for the stuff came into use, including shine, rotgut, white lightning, firewater, skullpop, and mountain dew.
The terms „moonshiner“ and bootlegger“ are often used synonymously, which is wrong: moonshiners made the liquor, bootleggers distributed it illegally, often by hiding it in the top of their riding boots. When automobiles came around, mechanics found ways to soup up the engines of bootlegger’s cars to help them avoid being caught by the police. When they weren’t working, these drivers liked to race each other to see whose mechanic had done the best job. One of them purportedly gave Bill France, the founder of NASCAR racing, seed money to jump-start his brand of motor sports.
Today, you can buy „moonshine“ legally in liquor stores in America. In Ireland, when a distiller tried to introduce „Irish Moonshine“, known locally as „Poteen“ or „Poitin“, into the market, the authorities initially stopped him. Today, it is available as „Extra-Gold Strength 90%“, which in America would be a whopping 180 proof – almost pure alcohol, and guaranteed to produce a splitting headache the next morning.